Whether you have a hedgehog that visits your garden or if, sadly, your experience of this species is mainly as road traffic casualties, you may have noticed that sightings of hedgehogs are now very infrequent.
Numbers of this prickly, small, species have declined dramatically over the last 50 years. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) reports that there are now fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK. This is down from an estimated 2 million in the mid-1990s and 36 million in the 1950s. One-third of the loss is thought to have taken place in the past 10 years.
This alarming trend tells us a great deal about the state of the environment in which we live. Hedgehogs are considered to be an “indicator” species and their success or decline reveals a lot about the state of the ‘green space’ around us.
So what is going on?
It is likely that a variety of factors have caused the precipitous population decline. Hedgehogs are generalists who feed on a range of food sources, from carrion to fallen fruit, although they favour rooting around in the soil looking for ‘tasty’ invertebrates to eat. They are found in a range of semi-natural/green spaces including parks, wilder sections of gardens and farmland, although traditionally they prefer woodland edge habitat and hedgerows.
All of these habitats have been subject to significant changes in use and management over the last 50 years. Habitat loss, resulting from more intensive agricultural practices, larger fields and removal of hedgerows and field margins, as well as urban expansion replacing green space, and the current trend to hard landscape gardens, all contributed to their decline. New roads and infrastructure cause barriers to movement, so reducing breeding opportunities. Weather events and trends related to climate change, such as flooding of habitat during heavy rainfall, is also a factor.
Why are hedgehogs important?
If the hedgehog population crashes beyond recovery, would we miss them? Very definitely, yes. As well as their endearing characteristics being embedded for in our national culture (Mrs Tiggywinkle, and the croquet ball in Alice in Wonderland, for example), hedgehogs fill an important ecological and economic niche. They deliver effective pest control in gardens and agriculture and play an important role in food chains, consuming a wide variety of invertebrates, small vertebrates and plants, and in turn being consumed by predators, including birds, ferrets and foxes.
What can we do to help hedgehogs?
Reconnection of fragmented habitat is just one way of helping to support hedgehogs. When designing new residential developments, or thinking about our own outdoor space at home, instead of simply using walls and fences to separate spaces, incorporate hedgerow planting along boundaries. The additional habitat corridor allows hedgehogs to move between gardens for foraging and places of shelter. If this is not feasible, fence panels should be raised by 5 inches from the ground to enable hedgehogs to move beneath them into adjacent habitats.
Inclusion of fruiting tree species when designing planting schemes will enhance foraging opportunities for hedgehogs, whilst incorporating and retaining wilder spaces and compost heaps will help provide alternative food sources and shelter.
If you take these small steps to encourage hedgehogs into your garden they will reward you by eating your slugs, snails, beetles and caterpillars. You also need to be careful not to use slug pellets which are toxic to hedgehogs.
Watch out before Bonfire Night
Hedgehogs hibernate between November and March, so, if you are considering a party to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, please check that there are no hedgehogs curled up in your bonfire.
Hedgehogs are very good at running, climbing and swimming, but are one of the few mammals that are true hibernators. They enter a state of torpor during hibernation between November and March, only emerging when conditions are warmer. Torpor allows them to save energy when food is scarce by dropping their body temperature to match their surroundings. This slows down all other bodily functions making normal activity impossible. Hibernation nests are typically constructed of mosses, grass, leaves and other garden debris and are located at the base of thick hedges, under thick bramble bushes, garden sheds or in piles of rubbish.
So, if you are planning a Guy Fawkes Night celebration, please check that there are no hedgehogs nestling beneath the bonfire pile. If you haven’t already built the bonfire, wait until the day of the party before putting the logs into place. Delaying the bonfire’s construction will help to save toads and frogs, as well as hedgehogs.